Pros: An incredibly interesting historical work that provides an intimate look at FDR
Cons: Too much about the blasted dog, leaves you wishing you knew more
I'm not a big history buff, but I like a good biography or nonfiction story from time to time. I came across a copy of Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship Between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley and picked it up, like I pick up most books, because I thought it sounded interesting.
Let me say before I begin the review that I am writing from the perspective of someone who has read no other books about Franklin Roosevelt — my knowledge of him mostly comes from what I remember from basic U.S. history classes. For those who are fans of FDR books, I'll note that the book's author, Geoffrey C. Ward, has written a couple other books about FDR, Before the Trumpet and A First-Class Temperament. Ward also co-authored some of Ken Burns' books.
Closest Companion is mostly made up of diary entries and letters to FDR by Daisy Suckley (pronounced SOOK-ley, I believe) and from him to her. Suckley was a very distant cousin of FDR who becomes a very close friend and confidant. Ward has edited the work and added in historical context that makes things easier to follow and understand, although Suckley's work provides a surprisingly good narrative on its own.
Although she comes across as an incredibly likable, interesting person who was reasonably intelligent for her time, Suckley paints herself in her letters as sort of a plain, average spinster who just happens to know the president. She befriended FDR not long after his paralysis, when his mother was worried about him being lonely, and followed his political rise, then became closer to him over the years.
Their friendship was amazingly intimate, with him telling her all kinds of details about what was going on in the war and what was going on in his life. No one really knows what kind of romantic and/or physical relationship they had (or is even certain they had one), but the earlier letters read like those of two people in love, and the older ones like two people who love each other and are terribly comfortable with each other.
Daisy was a solid writer who didn't fall into the trap of trying to hard to sound intelligent. She does an excellent job chronicling both her personal relationship with FDR while still providing perspective on the national scene. While she's pretty sharp when it comes to people, she's no political analyst or medical expert — she rarely (OK, never) disagrees with FDR's opinions, and her takes on his medical issues are a little funny. However, she was one of the few who was correctly concerned about his health in the months before he died. One of the things that sticks out to me in reading the book is how far medicine has advanced since then.
The book moves along pretty fast, but while Ward appears to have done a good job editing these letters, they do drag on a bit in the middle of the book, especially on the subject of the president's beloved dog, Fala, a Scottie that Daisy gave him. (If you've ever seen the FDR Memorial in Washington D.C., that's Fala sitting next to him.) Both Daisy and FDR tend to go on and on about that dog, and it's tiring after awhile. I'm kind of neutral on the subject of pets, and I found it a little annoying...if you don't like dogs, it'll probably drive you to distraction.
One of the most interesting things about the book to me was the way it details FDR's day-to-day activities. He spent a ridiculous amount of time doing ridiculous duties, like making arrangements for guests and finding new homes in the United States for monarchs displaced by World War II — things one would expect a secretary to handle.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I did start getting a little bored in the middle, but it picked back up towards the end. I've never read another historical book quite like it, and it gave me a lot of insight not only into FDR and the duties of the President, but into that time period in general.
The look at the president Daisy provides is not one that is often seen, and she comes across as such a loyal, likable person. While you never understand exactly what her and FDR's relationship is, by the end of the book you feel like you know her and can't imagine her doing anything unseemly. However, the lengths to which she and FDR went to conceal their friendship, which are detailed in passing in the book, do make it seem like they thought their relationship was something to be hidden. It kind of drove me crazy how much the book leaves to your imagination, but there really is no way of knowing the truth, so it sort of had to be that way.
I think this book will appeal to several different types of people:
1. People who like old-fashioned love stories.
2. People who like to read about FDR.
3. People who like to read about the day-to-day workings of the President and the White House.
If you're not a history fan, or if you like your love stories a little more upfront and obvious (and there's nothing wrong with that...after reading for awhile, I almost wanted to yell, "Just kiss already!"), then this book might not be for you. Personally, I really enjoyed it.